Denis McDonough, former White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama and former White House deputy national security advisor, addressed a variety of questions during a fireside chat on Oct. 13, 2020.

Denis McDonough, former White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama and former White House deputy national security advisor, was the second featured speaker in Niagara University’s “Transformative Visions” presidential speaker series. The fireside chat-style discussion, hosted by the university’s political science faculty, took place via Zoom on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

McDonough, who acknowledged that his Catholic faith informed much of his advisory work, addressed a variety of questions with reflective, deliberate answers.

When asked if he was surprised by where the country is today, four years removed from when he operated in the White House, he replied that “Nothing now surprises me about our government.” He went on to say that he “was happily surprised that President Trump has been very good for civic participation in the United States.” The fact that the midterm elections in 2018 saw the highest voter turnout in a midterm election in 100 years both surprised him and gave him great hope, he said, because it suggests that there will be massive voter turnout in the upcoming election.

President Obama’s farewell address in January 2017 in Chicago urging citizens to get involved and to engage each other in candid, informed discussion and debate has motivated people to run for elected office and inspired opportunities for discourse, like the Transformative Visions series, he added.

McDonough also addressed questions around the dismantling of the accomplishments of the Obama administration, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba (he “was saddened and disappointed,” noting that these kinds of agreements are typically seen as binding from one administration to the next); whether or not he felt they could be restored if Biden wins (yes, but in ways that might be different from the original ideas); and if the fact that President Obama’s promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba was not realized changed his opinion of what can and can’t get done through politics (“It does not change my belief in what is accomplishable in our democracy, but it does underscore that these are really hard questions.”).

Asked whether the growth of the surveillance state under the Obama administration, as evidenced by actions such as domestic wiretapping, the prosecution of whistleblowers, and expansion of classified documents, reflected a changing world or a specific reorientation of policy, McDonough said that the “beauty of our system” is that we are held to account and have to answer to the decisions that are made. “We go through periods in our country where the technology outruns the processes and programs we have in place to ensure protections, privacy, civil liberties, and, nevertheless, the fundamental structure of the government, with its three competing branches … each of them with overlapping responsibilities and powers and capabilities” can lead to greater accountability to the American people, he said.

McDonough, who is executive fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, where he teaches a global policy seminar, was also asked about environmental policies he advocated that did not succeed and how he would solve the climate crisis today. He replied that he couldn’t think of one that was not implemented, but credited the experts he consulted with the ideas. He also noted that the most consequential thing the Obama administration did was break the underlying impasse in the UN climate system that treated developed economies and developing economies differently in terms of their responsibility to limit current carbon pollution.

McDonough also explained why the Affordable Care Act includes a mandate for all Americans to have health insurance, what the implications of repealing the act would be, and why he thinks Congress would enact a new health care proposal (“They would have to, because we’d be in the middle of a pandemic, and you have millions and millions of people relying on coverage in the context of the pandemic”); addressed the challenges of making our college and university system both affordable and accessible (“the institutions that find those innovations and therefore increase access … are going to be the big winners in a new university milieu”); and talked about the refugee crisis, which he calls the “defining topic of the 21st century,” and referenced Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” in response to questions on those issues.

He ended with an appeal to the students to become involved in politics. “We need you, Uncle Sam needs you. We need the best this country has to offer, and that’s the students on this screen.”

The next speaker in the Transformative Visions presidential speaker series is Dina Gilio-Whitaker, policy director and a senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, who will discuss environmental justice and indigenous resistance on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, at 7 p.m.

For more information about the series, contact Kevin Hinkley,, or Dr. David Reilly,

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